A few scant years ago, a 21 year-old, who a lot of people thought was from Glasgow, debuted on the music scene with an arrestingly gruff voice and lush arrangements. Comparisons were thrown around to Nick Drake and Gram Parsons due to a mature and complex sound that was well beyond the singer’s years. Well, it turns out that Rice was actually born in Virginia, not Scotland, and his debut album, Trouble Is Real, was not necessarily indicative of the music that would come later from this long-haired, baby-faced troubadour. What will undoubtedly be more publicized than Rice’s latest album, Further North, is his relationship with Jenny Lewis. If, as most interviews and reviews would have you believe, Lewis and Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley are this generation’s equivalent of the tumultuous pair of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, than that would make Rice the Don Henley rebound.
While that comparison may not really work in terms of age (Rice is seven years Lewis’ junior) or notoriety (EVERYONE at that time knew who Nicks and Henley were), it does seem to work musically. Like Rilo Kiley (or maybe even because of Lewis’ influence), Rice’s music now seems steeped in the sounds, feels and auras of a ’70s Laurel Canyon vibe (and Rice has got the big aviator glasses on the back cover to prove it). I’ll say this. If you’re a fan of Rilo or Lewis’ solo album, but always felt it needed a raspy male voice, then you’re definitely going to like Further North. Gone are the lush string arrangements and Nick Drake-y dramatic feel to Rice’s music, replaced with a twangy, Nebraska meets Death Valley and `everything in between’ atmosphere. “We’re All Stuck Out in the Desert” is the first single and opening track and it certainly displays how much effect Lewis’ contribution made to the record (she co-wrote seven out of the ten co-penned tracks, with one left over).
“Desert” includes a line that is possibly telling about this relationship as Rice intones, “she calls the shots / that’s how we get along.” I don’t know what would be more disturbing, the fact that he wrote this line himself without his tongue in his own cheek or whether she wrote it. “End of the Affair,” instead of having something to do with the Graham Greene novel, finds Lewis and Rice singing a song about a breakup that could turn out to be prescient. With Rice’s dusky voice, he sounds more like Jackson Browne than Neil Young, but both comparisons are apt throughout the album at different times. But, unfortunately, Rice left behind the more Browne-like poignancy and reflective moments for hooks and a pop sensibility. The trippy feel, echo effects and wailing guitar solos of “THC” seem more of a modern day vision of what the ’70s drug culture was than the actual ’70s drug culture.
The best songs on Further North are the ones that are obviously influenced by Lewis. “It Couldn’t Be Me,” “End of the Affair” and “Hard to Believe” provide the best examples. Hearing these songs sounds like Rice is in a Jenny Lewis cover band rather than putting forth his own material. Before you think me unfair, consider this: had Rice released anything prior to Further North that resembled anything like these songs, it’d be understandable, but Trouble is Real sounds like an album from a completely different artist.
Considering that Blake Sennett only wrote one song on Under the Blacklight, and Further North is weighted with Lewis’ unmistakable touch, it appears that Ms. Lewis has let her solo success get to her head and is dominating the music of the men in her life. While this is great news for Lewis fans, it makes me wonder…which album presents the real musical voice of Johnathan Rice? And will we ever know? Another unfortunate aspect of this romantic duo is that the one entirely skippable track on the previously mentioned Rilo Kiley album was “Dejalo,” the one co-written by Rice. I had hoped that their subsequent collaborations would prove better than that track, but my hopes appear to have been dashed. On the surface, Further North is a breezy California circa 1973 type of album, but further (pun intended) delving finds one somewhat disappointed as there is little present but surface. Whereas Neil Young found rich complexity `after the gold rush,’ Rice merely finds a desolate and dreary landscape with bouncy chords that attempt to divert your attention from the emptiness within.